There’s a clever adage that goes, “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.” That’s the crux of The Lifespan of a Fact, 4th Wall Theatre Company’s second outing of the season.
It’s exactly the sort of play that 4th Wall does so very well: lots of wit; a set that starts as one thing and slides effortlessly into something else; a play that showcases actors doing the thing they do best, making it a must-see on Houston’s theater scene.
The Lifespan of a Fact is based on a book of the same name by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal, which itself is based on D’Agata’s essay “What Happens There,” originally commissioned for Harper’s in 2003.
The play's source material is an essay that investigates the suicide of a Las Vegas teenager. The play opened on Broadway in October 2018 and closed the following January. It’s about a magazine editor, Emily Penrose, who assigns intern Jim Fingal to fact-check D’Agata’s story. She’s stopped the presses on an issue of the magazine and gives Fingal a little over four days to get the check done. Tensions arise when Fingal does his job a bit too thoroughly for D’Agata’s taste.
A whole lot of characters are trying to prove themselves here. Pamela Vogel’s Emily, played with tightly wound energy by one of Houston’s acting treasures, seeks a story that could redeem both her magazine and her career. Emily’s fighting against all kinds of things – digital media, shrinking ad sales, an aging audience, personal demons – and she needs a win.
Vogel takes all that chaos, winds it into a tightly packed snowball and offers a pitch-perfect performance. The character of John D’Agata is the very cliché of an artist: huge ego, brilliant, entitled. Nick Farco plays him with a prickliness that invites sympathy, not an easy trick to pull off, given the character’s arrogance.
Jack Gereski’s performance as Jim Fingal–a guy fighting for a chance to break into the business and make a name for himself–is smart and unrelenting. Going head-to-head with Vogel and Farco, he more than holds his own, and his deft delivery of the play’s meaty dialogue is the show's breakout performance.
Kim Tobin-Lehl has always been an actor’s director, and she thrives with plays like this one. She’s paced the play with laser-like precision, giving her actors plenty of space for verbal fireworks, which in turn gives the show’s quiet bits extraordinary power.
Ryan McGeittigan continues to prove why he’s one of the best set designers anywhere, with a stage design that transitions from a white, modern magazine office to a homey, well-worn Las Vegas apartment. Dan Jones’ lighting brings a perfect complement to this, from the brightly lit New York office to the more golden hues of D’Agata’s home. Projections above the action count down to the looming magazine deadline.
This is a show that falls a little bit too in love with its subject, however. “I’m not interested in accuracy! I’m interested in truth,” D’Agata says at one point in the play. It’s perfect for those who are interested in the writer and editor dynamic, the inner workings of media, as well as what it takes to get at the truth. As a writer, I’m here for all of it!
Audiences who are less interested in hearing writers and editors wax lyrical over the importance of their place in the world may well roll their eyes over a slight whiff of self-importance.
In the end, The Lifespan of a Fact is a show with something to say about why the facts matter, and how people with the best of intentions can sometimes blur the lines between fact and truth. It’s meaty material that audiences will find engaging, especially because it’s not a show that’s as black-and-white as the ink on the magazine page.
The Lifespan of a Fact by Jeremy Kareken & David Murrell and Gordon Farrell is on at 4th Wall Theatre through Feb. 5. For more information, visit here.